Although Barthel says Phantogram is more of a "head-bopping" band than a dance band, the fans at Coachella were into the show with their heads and their bodies.
Sarah Bartel is a magnetic but self-contained presence on stage. Tall and slender with shoulder-length black hair, she seems oblivious to the waves of pleasure produced on stage by her band Phantogram. Off stage, she affably fields a reporter's questions, even when bemused by comparisons of her sound to the distinctive British female vocalists Liz Fraser of the Cocteau Twins and Beth Gibbons of Portishead.
"We're not extremely influenced by them," she says succinctly from her home in Saratoga Springs, New York, approximately three hours north of Manhattan. But she wants to make it clear she's not offended by the suggestion. "It's always an honor when someone says that. It's very cool. I'll take that compliment, definitely," she says, laughing.
Barthel is one half of Phantogram, breaking out nationally in just their fourth year of making music together. Barthel sings and plays keyboards, while her partner, Josh Carter, sings, plays guitars and produces. (A drummer, Tim Oakley, was added to enhance their live performances last year.)
When asked whom she and Carter have been influenced by, she mentions '60s Motown as a starting point, and then adds more contemporary underground hip-hop sounds, specifically producers like Ja Dilla and MadLib. Although Carter has said he thinks the term "trip-hop" is dated, you definitely could use that term to reference them. Barthel also refers to seminal shoegaze bands such as Slowdive and My Bloody Valentine. "Even pop music stuff we hear on the radio," she says. "We try to grab all of our influences from everywhere and try to experiment with them."
Although they have two EP releases, Phantogram's February 2010 full-length disc, Eyelid Moves, was the record that first brought them wider attention and a bigger fan base. That album's entrancing opener, "Mouthful of Diamonds," features a killer synthesizer riff, and Barthel and Carter trade off singing lead throughout the disk, with Barthel's "As Far as I Can See" showing hints of Motown.
Wednesday's show at Czar is the group's first appearance in Tampa, though they did play South Florida in the dead of summer last year. They've also become regulars at some of the biggest rock festivals in the country, including a featured Sunday night spot in April at the Coachella Festival in suburban Palm Springs. "That was really fun," Barthel recounts. "It was a dream come true for us, to be able to play such an honorable festival and just to be able to have a good slot, a nighttime slot, and we got to see some music when we were there. It was wonderful."
Although Barthel says Phantogram is more of a "head-bopping" band than a dance band, the fans at Coachella were into the show with their heads and their bodies; the mood was euphoric, with plenty of grooving going on. Barthel seems focused on stage, but she says it's exciting to see the fans singing along.
They're playing more festivals next month, including the Outside Lands Festival in San Francisco and Lollapalooza in Chicago (albeit in a less glamorous early-afternoon slot).
They also have a new EP that Barthel says should drop next month.
So is this just the beginning? The band hopes so. Sarah Barthel says that's the plan. "We want to be growing, working on stuff, and just being part of music in one way or another."
She can't say when the band will record their next full-length disc, but "we plan to have a thousand more — that's our goal," she says, cracking herself up.